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Michael LeRoy, expert on collective bargaining

12/12/2012  8:00 am

Labor and law professor Michael LeRoy is an expert in collective bargaining and the author of the legal casebook “Collective Bargaining in Sports and Entertainment.” In an interview with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora, LeRoy discusses the labor impasse between NHL players and owners.

The NHL has had a long history of labor disputes; in fact, it’s the first professional sports league to lose an entire season to a lockout. By not seeking a swift resolution, is the NHL dooming itself to irrelevance to all but its most die-hard fans?

image of professor michael leroyGiven the seemingly endless number of games and leagues for sports fans, including greater TV exposure for professional soccer, the NHL might be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

For a little perspective, professional baseball attendance was set back for several years after the 1994 strike canceled about one-third of its season. This is the second prolonged work stoppage in the NHL in recent years. Older fans will likely come back to the NHL; younger ones will pursue new passions.

The last time the NHL had a lockout, during the 2004-2005 season, Commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the entire season in mid-February. Do you foresee history repeating itself? Can the league survive another lost season?

A lost season is a growing possibility. Games have been canceled through the end of the calendar year. Since the NHL season overlaps with the NFL, NBA, and college football and basketball seasons, restarting the games this late in the season would have little chance of breaking through the clutter of interesting seasons, teams and stars in other sports that have a more compelling story to sell.

Which side has the upper hand at this point – players or owners?

Clearly, the owners are in the driver’s seat – but are they heading off a cliff? It appears the players have essentially agreed to a much lower split of the revenue. A key hang-up, though, involves long-term contracts going forward that would exceed the new revenue split and team caps. In effect, the owners appear not only to be asking for prospective concessions, but also the right to renegotiate player contracts that they agreed to years ago. It’s a double-whammy for players.

Do the two parties need to bring in federal mediators or some other third party to break the negotiating gridlock between players and owners?

No, they have highly experienced negotiators. Bettman and his counterpart, Donald Fehr, actually absented themselves from negotiations last week, likely because they both believed the process was so stalemated that they thought having new faces and voices might help. It didn’t.

Marvin Miller, a former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, died recently. Hank Aaron once compared Miller's importance to professional baseball as on par with Jackie Robinson. How responsible was Miller for changing not only the economics of baseball, but of all professional sports?

Before Marvin Miller led the baseball players, every professional athlete was owned by his team. He either played his entire career with one team, or was traded. Salaries were so low that players sold insurance or cars, or taught P.E., during the offseason. He devised a plan for enabling baseball players – and by extension, all other professional athletes – to achieve limited free agency. With teams competing in an open market for talent, not only did salaries rise, but so did fan interest in these sports. Imagine how happy the fans are in Denver because Peyton Manning was allowed to sign with their beloved Broncos.

Today, sports fans are well-versed in the economics of the leagues that they follow. Miller was an economist who gave his professional life to players who were basically treated like chattel.

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